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Blair and Hitchens debate religion as force for good

By on Monday, 29 November 2010

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair defended religious faith as a force for good in the world during a televised debate with atheist and columnist Christopher Hitchens. Andrew Winning/PA Wire

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair defended religious faith as a force for good in the world during a televised debate with atheist and columnist Christopher Hitchens. Andrew Winning/PA Wire

Despite his legendary debating skills and his ability to think on his feet former prime minister Tony Blair was on the losing side of theargument last week in a debate on the value of religion. Recent Catholic convert Mr Blair was facing journalist and atheist Christopher Hitchens, debating the proposition “Be it resolved, religion is a force for good in the world”.

The vote by the 2,700 audience at the end of the 90-minute debate in Toronto last week was a clear two-thirds/one-third split: 68 percent for Mr Hitchens and 32 per cent for Mr Blair. Before the debate the audience had already been strongly against the motion, with 57 per cent opposing it and only 22 per cent in favour; the remainder were undecided; each side increased its support by about 10 per cent.

Mr Hitchens, author of God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, presented a forceful case against religion.
“Once you assume a creator and a plan, it makes us objects in a cruel experiment, whereby we are created sick, and commanded to be well,” he said in his opening statement. “And over us, to supervise this, is installed a celestial dictatorship, a kind of divine North Korea. Greedy, exigent, greedy for uncritical praise from dawn until dusk and swift to punish the original sins with which it so tenderly gifted us in the very first place.”

Religion, he said, “forces nice people to do unkind things, and also makes intelligent people say stupid things”. Mr Hitchens cited the physicist Stephen Weinberg, that “in the ordinary moral universe, the good will do the best they can, the worst will do the worst they can, but if you want to make good people do wicked things, you’ll need religion”.

His arguments appeared to put Mr Blair on the defensive. After making the case that much of the world’s social care is religion-based – for example, “A quarter of worldwide HIV/AIDS care is provided by Catholic organisations” – he finished by responding directly to Mr Hitchens’ argument:

“I know very well that you can point, and quite rightly Christopher does, to examples of where people have used religion to do things that are terrible. And that have made the world a worse place. But I ask you not to judge all people of religious faith by those people, any more than we would judge politics by bad politicians. Or indeed journalists by bad journalists.”

Mr Blair concluded: “The question is, along with all the things that are wrong with religion, is there also something within it that helps the world to be better and people to do good, and I would submit there is.”

Mr Hitchens responded forthrightly to Mr Blair’s point about Catholic charities, saying that “if I was a member of a church that had preached that AIDS was not as bad as condoms, I would be putting some conscience money into Africa too, I must say”. He went on: “It won’t bring back the millions of people who have died wretched deaths because of that teaching, that still goes on.”

Again Mr Blair seemed to be on the back foot in his response.

“Of course it’s the case that you do not have to be a person of faith in order to do good work, I’ve never claimed that, I would never claim that,” he said. “I know lots of people, many, many people, who are people not of faith at all, but who do fantastic and decent work for their communities and for the world. My claim is just very simple, there are nonetheless people who are inspired by their faith to do good.”

The encounter was one of the Munk debates, put on by Hungarian-born Canadian businessman and philanthropist Peter Munk.

  • aisake040188camaibau

    God has created the world with perfectness but humans had pollute it with every mortal and immortal sin committed each day. Please don't blame the religion as cause of despair, the religion does not teaches followers of Christ to do bad but good either.I encourage Faithful Catholic Followers not to be wash away for some irrelevant issues and topics which it has nonsense and useless because this what pagant usually do, they ctritise christians.All the Best!

  • cath

    What's ridiculous is the idea that the Church “caused” AIDS by refusing to advocate condoms. If people followed the Church's teachings against fornication and adultery, there would be no AIDS.

  • louella

    If the Church's teachings caused the spread of AIDS….there wouldn't be more AIDS in Secular/Protestant South Africa in comparison to Catholic South America.

    And Mexico wouldn't have a lower rate of new cases of AIDS than the US!!

  • Karmenu of Malta

    The vote of the crowd makes no difference to those who are convinced that all religions are not the same in value and importance. In fact, some religions are, while other religions are not, a force for good. I am perfectly convinced that Christianity is the one and only complete religion in the world and is definitely a force for good. I also know that I cannot convince any non-believer, nor would I attempt to. Non-believers can only convince themselves if they honestly delve deeply enough in the subject.

  • Magdalan

    No disrespect for Mr. Blair, but there have got to be better debaters out there who can hold their own with Mr. Kitchens with greater clarity?, and perhaps put him on notice?

  • thomaspoovathinkal

    Poor Blair, I feel sympathy for him. I am a Catholic, though not a convert.

    Those who know the only true God whose name is JESUS CHRIST need not undergo any conversion if they keep Him enthroned in their hearts always.

    BUT ALL THE SAME, I MUST SINCERELY CONGRATULATE MR. BLAIR FOR HIS HUMILITY, HONESTY AND COURAGE TO COME TO THE TRUE CHURCH OF CHRIST THE LORD UNDERGOING A TRUE CONVERSION, UNLIKE MR.CHRISTOPHER ( CHRISTOPHER MEANS ONE WHO CARRIES CHRIST BUT IN TRUTH……..) HITCHENS WHO HAS NOT SURVEYED THE WHOLE AREAS OF HIS LIFE SO AS TO FEEL THE NEED OF A TRUE CONVERSION. FOR HE IS TOO SURE OF HIMSELF. MAY BE FOR THAT VERY REASON ALL THE IGNORANT, ARROGANT AND REACTIONARY ELEMENTS ARE ON HIS SIDE. MAY GOODNESS HAVE MERCY ON HIM.

  • Anthony

    I agree; my tactic would have been to substitute Blair with someone completely unknown and unheralded who has dedicated their life to alleviating suffering precisely because he/ she believes we are all made in God's image and that when we love our neighbour as ourselves we are doing this for Jesus.

    Anyway, I didn't get to choose so war-monger cafeteria Catholic Blair got the nod.

  • Eric Conway

    It seems as if Hitchens was preaching to the atheistically converted. Canada is one of the most rigidly closed liberal-fundamentalist societies on earth. Only card carrying pc liberal/feminist thoughts need apply. His argument about aids/Africa is puerile/irrational in the extreme. The leading Harvard aids expert, Prof. Edward Green ( a non-Catholic ), is in agreement with rhe Catholic approach to the aids problem. In any event, in accordance with Catholic teaching on free will, Hitchens & co. are free to set up their own aids hospices in Africa, & distribute condoms till the ows come home. But no, they are cowardly hypocrites. Instead of getting up off their posteriors & actually doing something, they sit on the fence & critice others for their work.

  • Gretchen

    “If you want to make good people do wicked things, you’ll need religion.” Mr Stephen Weinberg being a physicist, one wonders which data his inane comment was based on. Besides, what “religion” was he talking about? Were the subjects of the celebrated Milgram experiment who proved themselves willing to torture others on the authority of someone who dressed and talked like a scientist deluded by any other “religion” than the modern cult of science?
    However, it fits Mr Hitchen's image as a self-declared scourge of religion that he relies systematically on fallacies, such as the appeal to authority and setting up straw men, to make his case forcefully. Which is not to say that his case is “forceful”.

  • Rich

    I suggest that next time we're invited to debate we carefully agree the motion before we enter into the discussion – “Be it resolved, the Holy Spirit is a force for good in the world” would have guided the debate more accurately.

  • Anthony

    I like your main point. However…no disrespect, but who (except The Almighty) has the authority to decide who (or, indeed, what) is a “cafeteria Catholic”?

    (Not sure who this particular “Anthony” is, folks, but it isn't me!)

  • Sapientia20

    I've really nothing to say about Blair.
    Being brought up in ''scientific atheism'' since childhood in Sweden, Hitchens claims are of the same quality as the Swedish Humanist Society's chairperson, Christer Sturmark.
    He has said in front of an academic audience, that natural science is the basis of modern atheism, particularly his own brand.
    I honestly cannot follow this atheistic/agnostic epistemology or philosophical claim, simply don't see the connection between science and atheism.
    In academic chemistry, how are we to do this? To reach this position?
    Blair could have used more of his political skills to extract some answers from this man, Hitchens.

  • paulsays

    Although this would never work in practice, your theory makes sense. Why is it the Church has to resort to idiotic fake science such as saying that the aids virus is small enough to penetrate the latex condom instead of sticking to its true (but flawed) position, it is not being honest with the public.

  • Mark

    Quite right Cath, stone to death adulterers and women who aren't virgins on their wedding night I say. Ridiculous to suggest that condoms could help to stop the spread of an incurable disease…. Can't really believe that people think this way in this day and age – take a long hard look at yourself.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mike-De-Fleuriot/611844223 Mike De Fleuriot

    – for example, “A quarter of worldwide HIV/AIDS care is provided by Catholic organisations” –

    How much does the Catholic organisation provide in the way of prevention of HIV? Yes right, Condoms.

  • tyler perry the third

    well if people are going to have sex…u can preach not having sex…when that fails you must preach the next best alternative until there are no more alternative, we don’t live in a perfect world and your God isnt doing anything so we the people of earth need to look at the problem and find the best solution….which is not abstinence